View From the Wall

Getting Out of the Mud

As China’s rapidly changing market reform enters the 21st century, China’s educational reform, in contrast, seems to experience little change. Nevertheless, changes in education are occurring. While these changes have not caught the attention of many people, nonetheless, their meaning is more far reaching than most realize.

Wandering in a Dead End Street

Since the beginning of their civilization, the Chinese have always held education in very high regard. Their old saying, “Every pursuit in life is inferior to obtaining knowledge” expressed this attitude. A person with great learning, by passing examinations, could, step by step, climb all the way up to a high position in the imperial court. The examinations started at the local level, gradually moved up to the provincial level, and finally, the emperor himself would administer the examination at the highest, national level. This ancient system created numerous opportunities for many but, at the same time, fostered the attitude among the Chinese people that becoming an expert in ancient Chinese literature was the only way to a good, prosperous and honorable life.

In those days, studying was a static event and memorization was the key to success. Consequently, becoming a “book worm” and memorizing everything became the only option in education. This feudal educational system was abolished when the Qing dynasty was overthrown and China became a republic. Western style education was introduced in China. However the old way of education-memorization-would not die easily. Parents, teachers and school officials today still regard test scores as the most important aspect of education and memorization is still the key for doing well on those tests.

After the 1949 revolution, the new government centralized the educational system in China; however, the methods and styles of teaching, learning and testing were basically unchanged. In 1964, Chairman Mao spoke out against the then existing educational system as “treating the students as we would have treated our enemies.” Mao believed the students were completely out of touch with society and reality and were not learning anything worthwhile. He said the existing educational system produced only the “counter-revolutionary” element in students and was seen as the classic oppression that “capitalists” imposed on peasants. Therefore, in 1966 the “Cultural Revolution” began which virtually shut down all colleges and universities in China. Then, starting in 1968 and for the next nine years, more than twelve million middle school students were sent to rural farms to be “re-educated.” All university teachers and professors were also sent to farmlands or factories for the same purpose. From 1966 until 1977 when Mao died, China went through twelve years of an educational vacuum. During this time there was no elementary education, no higher education and no exams. This was Mao’s way of resolving China’s educational problem, and he called this China’s “revolutionary period” of education.

Deng Xiao Ping reinstituted college entrance examinations at the end of 1977. By that time, virtually all Chinese felt that it was one of the most urgent and important tasks for the country’s post Mao era. People once again regained hope in their educational system. In 1978, China’s educational system began a gradual restoration returning to the old system.

As population increases, the demand for educational institutions also increases—especially for college and universities. The central government in Beijing had total control over education in China, and allocated all funding. However, since Beijing was not able to provide adequate financing, education in China fell far behind the country’s need. China currently ranks about number 80 in the world for per person educational spending. This is even less than some third world countries such as Egypt, Chile and Thailand spend and far less than the U.S. and most European countries.

Almost all families in China want their children to go to college, but there is just not enough room in Chinese universities to absorb all the students. As a result, pressure begins to build on students early on—even while they are still in elementary school. In order to enter a good school, students must work hard memorizing material to the best of their ability in hopes of doing well on tests. Attending college means a good opportunity for a decent job after graduation, which ultimately brings honor to the family. On the other hand, not to get into college brings a high likelihood of being stuck in an undesirable job with no future. Therefore, there is much pressure on the students to do well in the annual national college entrance examination.

The cruel reality of “only the best survive” has resulted in numerous family tragedies. Students are forced to become memorization machines while creativity and pro-active learning are completely killed off. Students begin college with the knowledge they have memorized, but they cannot be creative in developing new way of thinking and research. After their graduation, they simply cannot meet the needs of a rapidly developing China. Without healthy economic development, the government does not have the financial resources to build universities or train more qualified teachers. Thus, it becomes a never-ending circle. As time goes by, more and more teachers, parents and students have come to realize that this vicious cycle has brought the entire national educational system to a dead end street. Without reform, Chinese children cannot look forward to a bright future and full modernization can never become a reality in China.

A Non-Political Approach to Education

Many attempts have been made by various educational institutions to improve and reform China’s existing educational system. Starting in the early 90s, many universities began to recognize that the major need of the market was for people with practical skills in technology and business. Although universities were unable to supply this need of the business community, by efficiently utilizing the resources they already had available, separate vocational training programs were started for non-college students. These programs now meet that need and also help the university and teachers to earn extra income. Suddenly, like wild flowers, all kinds of vocational training centers started to bloom throughout the country. Non-college students are now able to obtain nationally recognized certificates or diplomas by passing examinations after completing required courses acquired via the classroom or self-instruction. The popularity of TV also makes learning through televised educational programs a reality. Opening to the outside world helped English language learning become an emphasis among the youth. All of this is shaping up to what can be called an “adult education” or “self-instructional” fever in the entire country. Every evening, classrooms in middle or grade schools throughout China are full of adult students participating in educational classes. For the first time in Chinese history, education is being driven by market demands.

However, even with the new emphasis on market driven education, and even though this has created opportunities for college professors to earn additional income, it still has not changed the fact that the existing education puts more emphasizes on test scores than it does on true abilities. For most students, the goal is still to get into traditional colleges and universities that have very limited space. Many people have suggested that the government relax the requirements for establishing new institutions of higher education and allow civilians—and even foreign capital—to build new universities. Reform will come, they believe, by building more universities, raising the educational quality of middle and grade schools and reducing the workload of students. This proposal was elevated all the way to the People’s Congress where it received overwhelming support and also caught the attention of China’s top leaders. In order to arrive at a common understanding of the issue and to end the cycle of wandering in the existing dead end educational street, a national meeting on educational reform was called for in Beijing in 1999.

During this meeting, what surprised people was that most of the current Ministry of Education leadership was not interested in allowing civilians to build new universities. Fierce arguments broke out regarding “control of education.” It was then that the public finally began to understand why the Chinese government would allow civilian owned businesses and private enterprises, but would not allow civilians to start new universities. By allowing the private sector to open private universities, the government feared that private university administrations might not follow its direction in educational matters and politics. The Communist party must maintain full control of China’s education-especially on the college level. If this were not so, would students be willing to submit to party authority? Obviously, the scope of this meeting had become very political and exceeded the original intent of improving the existing educational system.

As this national conference on education was about to end without having achieved any concrete results, Premiere Zhu Rongji gave a speech to the attendees. He made two points regarding the future of education. First, the Ministry of Education should guarantee that all students in China have access to schools. Second, education in China must adopt a multi-pronged approach to building new schools. Education must be treated as an investment or business, not as the duty of the Communist party. With this speech, Zhu shed new light on the direction of educational reform in China.

Allowing for Educational Privatization

For the first time in over 2000 years, the educational system in China is experiencing real changes including the following.

  1. The central government eliminated all educational agencies or bureaus other than the Ministry of Education. All previous authorities were transferred to the Ministry of Education or local educational bureaus.
  2. Enrollment in colleges and universities was expanded and civilians are allowed to run and manage dormitories and cafeterias as businesses.
  3. Teaching materials and the evaluation system were improved.
  4. Students are allowed to transfer, take time off, audit classes and graduate as they complete all the required courses.
  5. Last but most importantly, the government no longer subsidizes students’ tuition and no longer distributes jobs to new college graduates. This means that higher education in China will be market driven and not dependent on government funding for survival. When students go to college, it will be their own personal decision and investment. They will no longer rely on the party to provide for them.

At the same time, various private and joint venture colleges officially entered the educational arena. There are increasing numbers of private and joint venture kindergartens, elementary and middle schools. Many colleges are now concerned with their ability to attract sufficient numbers of students. In 2001, the national college entrance examination will be held twice during the year, once in the summer and once in the winter. Students today worry less about whether they can get into college, but more about which college they should attend and the kind of jobs they can find after graduation. The subject of “political education,” that had been a requirement for many years, has been eliminated from the examination. The educational slogan has shifted from “examination based education” to “quality based education.” Finally, education in China, has evolved from being politically driven to being market driven.

Measuring Up to International Standards

Although education in China has just gone through exciting transformations, it still has a long way to go to measure up to international standards.

China has just reached the goal of offering nine years of government sponsored education to every citizen. However, tenth to twelfth grade education is still not available to all.

It is only recently that the Chinese have begun to accept the idea of vocational and special education. In colleges, the nation has just begun to allow different kinds of higher education and improvement in teaching materials. It is still unclear how private and public schools will be able to conduct a uniform evaluation of students. Will foreign investment be allowed in to build new schools without Chinese partners?

Above all, what is the true nature of education? If it is not for political purposes, might it be for money? At present, Chinese educators have no clear answers to any of these questions; nevertheless, these are questions China must face.

Education is an investment. How should it be developed in the context of ethics and virtues? How should the next generation be raised? These issues urgently require responses. Although no one may have all the answer, there is one thing we know for sure: education in China can no longer afford to go back to the old days of the dead end street.

Translated by Jeff Chuang.

Image credit: Alley by Saad Akhtar via Flickr.
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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio